It is rare to see satire done with as much warmth and reverence for what its ridiculing than Amazon Studio’s Jean-Claude Van Johnson. Normally with satire or parody films, there’s a sense of hateful condescension that really sticks it in and breaks it off for the source material. With JCVJ, the audience can feel that director Peter Atencio (Key & Peele, Keanu) and writer Dave Callaham (Expendables 1-3) are not only intimately familiar with JCVD’s filmography, but also have a distinct fondness for that special breed of 90’s action film that only stars like Van Damme, Stallone and Arnie could provide.
Synopsis: “Stars global martial arts & actor Jean-Claude Van Damme playing “Jean-Claude Van Damme,” a global martial arts & film sensation, also operating under the simple alias of “Johnson” as the world’s best undercover private contractor. Retired for years, a chance encounter with a lost love brings him back to the game. This time, he’ll be deadlier than ever. Probably.”
JCVJ is the kind of show you’d think they wrote and conceived of with the pipe dream of actually getting Van Damme to star in it. It’s easy to imagine everyone at a brainstorming session saying stuff like, “It’d be great if we could get a Jean-Claude Van Damme type to star in this one…” only to end up actually getting JCVD on board and excited at the prospect of being a parody unto himself. From the get-go the show indulges in the absurdity of the show’s premise. Van-Johnson only showers in coconut water and numbly rolls around his gigantic estate on a Segway. As he lets himself get pulled back into the spy world, he reconnects with his handler Jane (Phylicia Rashad, who is absolutely terrific throughout the entire season – so glad they put her on this project because she’s a gem!) and goes on assignment to track the spread of a new drug called HK (aka “Hong Kong” – heroin cut with ketamine).
His “cover” is that of his alter ego, action superstar/legend Jean Claude Van Damme shooting a direct-to-video low-budget action movie in Bulgaria called “Huck” (an action adaptation of the Mark Twain novel). Any long-time action movie aficionado will immediately get the joke as many of the 90’s action heroes often find themselves starring in DTV movies set in LA or NY, but obviously shot in some Eastern European country (known for their more affordable shooting locations).
He meets his team comprised of his tech support/former flame Vanessa (Kat Foster) and his armorer/disguise expert Luis (Moises Arias). Vanessa has aspirations of active field work and her relationship with JC only complicates things further. Luis is shown to have a mysterious/dark background that he’s reluctant to talk about. These three are a match made in action-movie aisle heaven! Rounding out the cast are Gunnar (Tim Peper), the director who is convinced he’s a true artiste and Dragan (Carlo Rota – Yakavetta from the 90’s classic Boondock Saints) as the film’s financier.
The main story of JC looking for the HK supplier gets sidetracked into a VERY over-the-top 90’s style world domination plot and then comes back around with a twist that hits close to home for Van Johnson. Throughout the six episodes, we get the best bits and pieces of action genre included along the way. Whether it be underground drift racing, time travel, weather control devices or evil dopplegangers, JCVJ approaches each well-worn cliché with fresh, fun-filled eyes – anyone who has watched Key & Peele will know exactly the kind of vibe this show puts off.
Amongst the many hilarious JCVD call-backs, the one they hit hardest (and most hilariously) is the Double Impact/Replicant/Maximum Risk angle of having a twin/doppleganger. In the pilot, JC comes across Filip (portrayed by JCVD, of course) who is a huge fan of the movie TimeCop and ends up snapping his neck in order to further infiltrate a warehouse. Filip becomes a recurring character and ends up having some of the best jokes in the season exemplifying the overall tone of
comedic existential dilemma” that the show does so well.
That perfect blend of earnestness and wink-at-the-camera parody helps the show rise above its contemporaries. While the show does a deep-dive on JC’s filmography, intimate knowledge of his work isn’t a requirement to enjoy Van Johnson. The premise revolves mainly around a man who is attempting to fill a void in his life with money, fame and being an international super-spy. A goodly portion of the show deals with Van Damme’s inner demons and him coming to grips with who he truly is amidst the preposterousness of his spy/movie star life. Some especially funny bits involve him name-dropping his own films when he’s in disguise in hopes that people will remember him. This theme extends to the rest of the cast as well. Both Vanessa and Luis deal with overcoming their own shaky pasts to become fully realized individuals – that kind of emotional sincerity connects all three together on their journey into the bizarre.
Kat Foster definitely kicks ass as Vanessa and while the show may be called Jean Claude Van Johnson, the biggest character arc belongs to her. Foster portrays Vanessa as the ambitious young agent looking to make a name for herself. When she finally gets the chance, she finds out that being a killer for hire may not be as romantic and cool as she initially assumed. That doesn’t stop Foster from slipping into the role of novice spy with ease and grace. She even gets to take part in one of the most time-honored traditions of the action genre – the training montage (this one takes place in a defunct Blockbuster video – yes, you read that right)!
You can check out Jean Claude Van Johnson now on Amazon Prime and follow us on Twitter @Official_FAN where you can hit us up with your thoughts on JCVJ (especially that ending – WHAAAAAAAAAAAAT).